Saturday, February 19, 2011

Derrida and Biblical Anthropology

Alice C. Linsley

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) developed a strategy by which he critiqued Western thought in literature, myth and in philosophy.  He criticized conventional interpretations of texts, legends and myths.

He pioneered the movement known as Deconstructionism in the mid-1960s. In his analysis he employs these interesting descriptors: logocentrism, phallogocentrism, the metaphysics of presence, and ontotheology.
·   Logocentrism emphasizes the primacy speech/debate in the Western philosophical tradition.
·   Phallogocentrism points to the tendency for the male version of the story to dominate in conventional interpretations.
·   Ontotheology was Derrida’s term for approaching “the center” to which we inevitably must return. Here we encounter Truth/Reality/God/Truth/Logos. Derrida said, “It would be possible to show that all the terms related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence, ... essence, existence, substance, subject, ... transcendentality, consciousness or conscience, god, man, and so forth.”
Deconstruction's literary aspect involves finding hidden meanings in the text using imagination or “invention” (Derrida’s term). The philosophical aspect concerns the “metaphysics of presence." Here Derrida borrows from the work of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger who maintained that Western philosophy has consistently granted “privilege” to presence itself. That is to say, something is because it can be, and something can be because it is. We might add that "something isn't" is also about metaphysical presence. Such a statement observes or marks negative space. Derrida argues that metaphysics affects the whole of philosophy from Plato onwards. Metaphysics explores binary oppositions and reveals a hierarchy whereby one of the opposites is perceived to be superior in some way to the other.
While Derrida loved word play and poked fun at conventional interpretations, he was never far from Plato when he spoke of and absolute or constant metaphysical presence. While language is unstable and meaning has reversals, Derrida demonstrated that these are often two sides of the same linguistic coin. It is not generally recognized that Derrida was bringing Western philosophy back to its most ancient Afro-Arabian roots. The Afro-Arabians would have said that the sacred center is where we find God, but for Derrida the center is a function, not God. It is the place to which we must continually return to find the threads of meaning.
Derrida sees that Western philosophy has lost the dialect between the binary opposites, consistently granting privilege to one side and marginalizing or ignoring its binary opposite. He speaks of presence and its shadow or trace. Here we see how he draws on Plato’s thought. His reversals are a strategic intervention within a constipated Western philosophical system. As Derrida suggested: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).
This reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition is no small aspect of deconstruction's strategy. Derrida's argument is that in examining a binary opposition and reversals, deconstruction brings to light traces of meaning that cannot be said to be present, but which must have metaphysical existence. This is not a new idea or even a new approach to meaning. As I will demonstrate in this essay, it is consistent with the mystical approaches of the Semitic peoples and we must remember that Derrida was a North African Arabic-speaking Jew. In a real sense, Derrida’s contribution to Western Philosophy has been to re-introduce the Semitic interpretive approach to meaning.
Let us now examine a case in point to understand the value of Derrida’s method for Biblical Anthropology.
Genesis 12: 8 says that Abraham proceeded “to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord” and consulted the prophet who sat under the Oak.
This sentence is full of meaning because of the reversal that it represents. Bethel means “House of God” and is associated with the east, the direction of the sunrise. Yet we are told that Abraham pitched his tent with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. This orientation represents a reversal and point to a mystery. The word Ai in Jewish mysticism is great Mother. The feminine principle has moved to the position of priority in the east, signaling a gender reversal.
In Jewish mysticism Ain soph is associated with north and the number 1 and represents the Hidden God, the Cause of all causes. Aima is associated with south and the number 3. Because the house of Ain (Bethel) has moved to the west, south has moved to the position of north. We have a reversal of directional poles that places south in the position of priority. South also presents marriage and reproduction. Then in Genesis 12:9 we are told that Abraham’s next journey takes him to the south, to the Negev. It appears that this was when he took Keturah to be his second wife. Now with Sarah in Hebron and Keturah in Beersheba, Abraham was able to establish control over a territory on a north-south axis, following the pattern of his forefathers.
We have further confirmation of the association of 1 with north and 3 with south in I Kings 7:23-26 and II Chronicles 4:1-4. Here we read that the altar in Solomon’s temple was to rest on 12 oxen: 3 facing north, 3 facing west, 3 facing south and 3 facing east. We note that north heads the list, having the position of priority. Then comes west (associated with the numbers 9 and 10) and then in the third position we have south.
The logic of “supplementarity” (Derrida’s term) shows that what is conceived as the marginal object does in fact define the central object of consideration. We have seen this in the complementarity and supplementarity of gender roles. So the binary polarities of the Afro-Asiatic worldview that assigned priority to north and east (those being associated with God) are reversible, bringing south and west to the position of priority. This reversal of south and north interpreted for Abraham the direction he was to go.
With south at the position of priority, Abraham headed south to Beersheba where he took his second wife, Keturah, his patrilineal cousin. Genesis 21:33 tells us that, “Abraham planted a tamar tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” The tamar is a date palm that was a symbol of fertility among Abraham’s people. It represented the female anatomy and feminine virtues and the palm fronds were used in the installation of priests and kings.
The date nut palm was the feminine counterpart to the oak tree.  The male prophet (moreh) sat under the Oak at Mamre on an east-west axis, but Deborah sat under a tamar between Bethel and Ramaah, on a north-south axis. Derrida showed great sensitivity to gender reversals such as this and found that they rendered meaning mostly unobserved by Western philosophers. For Derrida these alternative interpretations were the good stuff of deconstruction.

Related reading:  Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary OppositionsGender Reversal and Sacred Mystery; Circumcision and Binary Distinctions


  1. Alice,
    I have not posted in some time because I have become hung-up on the concept of that which is taken away or hidden. It is difficult to explain because I cannot find the right words. The sun was important but there was the understanding that a constant radiation caused dessication. The moon was the antidote to the sun. The double-axe labarys (waxing and waning moon) "cut" the harmful rays. The tongue was a type of knife that "cut" the voice vibrations only allowing some sounds to be produced.

    When Moses was given the tablets on Sinai the letters were incised so that the Glory of God shone through the incised letters. Understanding was created by what was NOT shown as well as what was allowed to be seen. That which is hidden is a very important theme and apparently is a Kingdom Principle.

    I know I am not explaining this very well. It seems to me that modulation of radio waves to produce sound is a good example of this concept. It is the interruption of the clear tone that creates meaning. Thomas Edison Edison originated the concept of electricity generation but Tesla showed the need for alternating current to make power generation useful to mankind. Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah...

  2. Yes, I understand how difficult it is to articulate such Mysteries. Perhaps Derrida can help here. He says that meaning is hidden in the relationship of the binary sets. We tend to look only at one or the other, when what needs to be milked is their relationship.

    The relationship of the sun and moon is worthy of considerable contemplation. Both are essential to life on Earth. They serve different fucntions, act very differently upon our bodies, but we would die were either to disappear. There is much to consider here.

    Write when you're ready. Good thoughts require time to reflect. :)

  3. The word "Ivri" could describe the process of inscribing the tablets on Sinai. As God's Glory passed through the Letters of the Law, that which was not required for understanding did not appear. Ivri could mean "transformation".

    Linguists claim that Ivri means to pass through the territory of other tribes. However, before they began their journey were they still called Ivri? Others have said that it is a derivitive of Hebron. Perhaps it is the other way around and Hebron is a derivitive of Ivri but what is the purpose of the "chet"?

    My theory is that Ivri originally meant "liver". Please don't laugh. This is the organ that cleanses the blood of impurities. The Greek word for liver is "heber". I have been investigating this word trying to understand this concept which led me to the Abraxes stones which led me to Queen Jezebel. Hopefully, I can get it all organized in Yam Suph.

    Surely America is built on this concept. Our laws pass through the liver of freedom and equality. Even though the authors of the Constitution only meant freedom and equality for European males, these Kingdom Principles have surpassed their original intent. Now we see the the Middle East passing through the liver of freedom. I did not think I would be alive to see it! I am sure that one day they will also pass through the liver of equality.

  4. "the Middle East passing through the liver of freedom... one day they will also pass through the liver of equality."

    I'm not as optimistic as you are, Susan, but may it be so!


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